Public schools across the nation are about to embark on that most joyous of holidays:Christmas Break. And many educators across the state of Tennessee are really looking forward to this hiatus in the school year for a multitude of reasons. Tennessee has undergone tremendous changes in public education. In fact, many could argue Tennessee is catching up with Florida as the number one destination for school reform in the nation. The easy road would have been to stay average and go with the flow. But Tennesseans want better for their children and public officials have responded.
Little doubt that Tennessee has made significant progress in education in the last few years. High school graduation rates have increased, and far more Tennessee students are going to college. However, the improvements we have made in our public schools have not always kept up with the transformation in society that requires more students to be more highly educated than ever before. While educating most people to a minimal or moderate level and a few people to a very high level was sufficient 20 to 30 years ago, today’s economy demands that all students receive a high-quality education. The demands on our schools have increased exponentially.
Mike Sheppard, General Counsel of Professional Educators of Tennessee, astutely points out: “Teachers must exercise a higher duty of care than most professionals. Teachers face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen. Nearly every day, teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement. And still they must teach!” And they must teach in uncertain economic times when many states and school districts have stringent budgets, have exhausted reserve funds and are continually looking at further reductions.
We have to be realistic that the demands we place on educators while in transition with reforms. As much as we believe teachers and administrators possess superhuman powers, they face even greater herculean challenges. We have done what the state and many local education agencies have done by transforming ourselves into an invaluable voice across Tennessee for public education by revamping our processes, systems, and culture around the demands of society by supporting students and teachers. It is imperative that we all continue to act with integrity, mutual respect while focusing on accountability and high standards.
As we say goodbye to 2011 and hello to 2012 we must put a few items on our Christmas List and make a few resolutions for the upcoming year. First, we can agree that we must support teachers and administrators as they work to meet the educational challenges that our state encounters. Second, let’s fix the current evaluation system to make sure all school systems have the capacity to evaluate all teachers fairly. This must include more training to become more consistent, as well as an appeal process. Third, many educators face false accusations of varying degrees. Perhaps the state should take a hard look at legislation that prohibits frivolous and clearly false lawsuits against educators. We cannot have an environment where teachers are more focused on trying to avoid litigation than on providing the best educational environment possible for their students. Fourth, it would be invaluable if Tennessee parents make their children’s education a top priority in their homes. Then we will begin to see more success in our schools. Fifth, even in tough economic times, we must ensure that our local school systems are monetarily sound and able to maintain their current level of instruction, but they also need additional revenue to support necessary educational reforms. Along those lines we must also hold down the cost on higher education. Postsecondary education is a key to economic mobility for Tennesseans and economic competitiveness for our state.
Tackling those five items, we should see students leave Tennessee classrooms better prepared academically, socially, and emotionally in 2012, as well as making a lasting impression across the state. As professionals, Tennessee teachers are committed to supporting quality public education and the professional rights and obligations of the education community. As an organization, we are striving to become the provider of the programs and services that enable educators and schoolchildren to achieve their highest potential. Educators must work more intimately in partnership with parents, business, communities and local/state government. In 2012 it is time we all move forward together.
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.